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NECN anchor's `Katrina' offers a poignant, personal look back

Looking back now, a year later, it's a surreal scene. The New Orleans Saints are playing a preseason game last Aug. 26, in the sunny confines of a clean, green Sup erdome before cheering fans. No one knows that just a few days later, the Superdome will become a house of horrors as thousands of desperate Hurricane Katrina victims flock to it, with little food and water, few toilets, and thugs on the loose in temperatures that soared above 100 degrees.

In Karen Swensen's poignant and pointed documentary, which shows the before, during, and after of Katrina, it all comes back -- the roof-high waters, the uprooted trees, the floating bodies. ``Katrina: A Flood of Tears" has a quiet authority, narrated by someone who was there. This story is personal, not a polemic like Spike Lee's HBO documentary. There are no talking heads, no Jesse Jacksons, Sean Penns, or Anderson Coopers rowing down the streets, trailed by cameras.

It's Katrina writ small, and the viewer trusts Swensen, a news anchor who joined NECN in February, with the subject. She is not some bold-faced name helicoptering in for a live shot; as a New Orleans news anchor at the time, she reported on the hurricane for days on end, fleeing from one makeshift studio to another as the flood waters rose and her police officer husband worked the embattled Superdome.

What she attempts to do in this hour long film is tell her own story while weaving in a handful of other survivors' tales. Swensen's home was swamped, her possessions lost, her family separated. Her beloved dog died, and one of her friends -- the police department spokesman -- committed suicide in the storm's aftermath.

Swensen could have lapsed into the maudlin, but her tone manages to stay unsentimental as she shows footage of packing her toddler off to relatives just before the hurricane hits, and after, as she and her husband take photos -- for insurance purposes -- of their ruined home.

She knows she's one of the lucky ones: There's someplace for her daughter to go, there's flood insurance. The family, though separated for a while, has a future.

The film deftly cuts to others much less fortunate and the result is a rich mosaic of scenes and voices. Swensen has the advantage of her own dramatic footage with shell-shocked survivors. Months later, she goes back to check on them. There's a black woman with a disabled husband and a house full of children and grandchildren in the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward who has lost everything. But a FEMA inspector has reported she doesn't have ``that much damage" -- even as Swensen's cameras pan over a mountain of debris.

In a middle-class neighborhood, she interviews an elderly man who stayed in the attic of his flooded home for eight days, refusing to leave his dog. When Swensen revisits him a few months later, he's done nothing to his house, which is a moldy dump. He's disoriented, a bit lost.

As for the grandmother, she has suffered a stroke in the intervening months, and FEMA has written her a check for $10,000 -- enough to pay off the mortgage on her house before it is demolished.

This film is more anguished than angry, more personal than political. Southerners are known for their faith and optimism, and in the end, when the camera shows Swensen's husband with a crowbar and hammer in one hand, and a sunflower that grows incongruously among the storm's detritus in his other hand, it's a sign that, despite the hell and high waters, the city will return to life.

As a concentration camp prisoner, Simon Wiesenthal saw sunflowers as the only color in a black-and-white world, a symbol of light among darkness. With a surviving sunflower, and Louis Armstrong playing ``What a Wonderful World," the viewer roots for the future of this beautiful, benighted city and all its survivors.

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